Reports that Facebook helped spread fake news brewed in Russia raises the question of whether Big Data has gotten too big and unaccountable.
According to the social network, the ads in question “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum—touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.” In other words, they featured hot-button issues that are ripping our social fabric apart at the seams.
Whether this “mistake” was generated by profit motive, nefarious greed, or gross negligence, Facebook’s abdication of moral responsibility provides additional fodder for critics on both sides of the aisle. If liberals worry that innovation is unraveling privacy and worker protections, then patriotic conservatives should be worried about the impact on traditional institutions, including the efficacy of our elections.
This news also reinforces the position of right-wing populists like former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon, who wants to regulate Facebook and Google like public utilities.
Big tech companies are ostensibly “progressive” (which might help explain why some on the populist right dislike them), but mainstream conservatives have cheered their entrepreneurial spirit (see Uber vs. regulations).
We are now entering into a phase where even free-market conservatives may have to rethink their tech utopian dreams.
Until recently, conservatives tended to view entrepreneurial progress as an unalloyed good—and the entrepreneur as a sort of hero. But this view is simplistic. There are always tradeoffs, and—in many ways—disruption is sometimes at odds with traditional conservative values—a point that has become more obvious in the era of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.
This is not a new observation, however. In his classic book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, writer and sociologist Daniel Bell observes that “delayed gratification, career orientation, devotion to enterprise” are still valued attributes. “Yet,” Bell notes, “on the marketing side, the sale of goods, packaged in the glossy images of glamour and sex, promotes a hedonistic way of life whose premise is the voluptuous gratification of the lineaments of desire. The consequence of this contradiction… is that a corporation finds its people straight by day and swingers by night.”
Long before social media, social conservatives had to wrestle with an amoral capitalism that, left unchecked, undermines traditional values and institutions. The rise of companies like Facebook has simply taken this struggle to a new level. Today, the challenge isn’t merely defending traditional values, it is defending the American system itself.
The immediate question is: Should the government be regulating Facebook?
On Fox News Sunday last week, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Townhall.com’s Guy Benson—both conservatives—engaged in this internecine proxy battle. “I think having the wild, wild West when companies are small is exactly right,” Gingrich conceded, before adding, “Several of these companies are so enormous that there’s some sense of, what does it mean to us as a free society to have global corporations run by founding billionaires… and there’s been almost no supervision…”
Benson responded with a free-market argument. “My faith in the ability of government to respond to that well through regulation is very low,” he said. “I think it is―government is slow-moving. It is the opposite of innovative. And the Internet is a miracle. And it wouldn’t exist as it does today if the government’s clumsy hand had been on its neck from day one.”
He’s not alone. I asked Zac Moffatt, CEO of Targeted Victory, a GOP firm that is prominent in the tech world, about regulating Facebook’s political ads. “To me, this is Washington looking for a silver bullet to explain how something they could never imagine happening, actually happened,” he said.
Technological advances have muddied the political waters, as is evidenced by how conservatives have viewed this issue from different perspectives. Whether it’s free speech or free markets, it’s increasingly difficult to be an absolutist in Trump’s 21st century America.
Facebook has abdicated its inherent and implied responsibility. Unless there’s a better answer, I’m afraid that Big Data has put out the welcome mat for Big Government.